September 2012

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Toronto

Thanks to my hosts with the Conference Board of Canada, I got some excellent quality time in Toronto this week, including drinks and dinner, respectively, at the Horizons bar and the rotating 360 restaurant at the 1500-foot level of the CN Tower.

Of course, being the aerial photography freak that I am, I took a lot of pictures there, looking down on interesting infrastructure, building construction, and a skyline at sunset and after dark, viewed from the city’s highest landmark.

Here’s a slideshow of the whole series.

Charge for them.

Let users be customers and not just consumers. Let demand engage supply the old fashioned way: by paying for goods and services, and making the sellers directly accountable to buyers in a truly competitive marketplace.

Here’s the thing. We, the customers of Apple and the consumers of both Apple’s and Google’s free map services, are getting screwed by value-subtracting games played by both companies.

Millions of us are highly dependent on our phones’ primary maps app. From the beginning on the iPhone that app has been Google’s — or at least seemed to be. By replacing it with a shamefully lame app by the same name, Apple screwed its customers, hard. Why? Because it wanted to screw Google. And why screw Google? Because Google had been screwing both Apple and iPhone/iPad customers for the duration.

Or so I assume. I really don’t know.

A few days ago I asked A question about Apple vs. Google maps. Noting that Google’s Maps app on iPhone lacked at least two features found on Android versions of the app — adaptive turn-by-turn directions and vocalization — I wondered out loud if Google was playing a passive-aggressive game with Apple by crippling the iOS version of the app. One commenter said it was Apple’s choice not to include those features; but in a New York Times column a few days ago, David Pogue confirmed my original suspicion:

After poking around, here’s what I’ve learned.

First, why Apple dropped the old version: Google, it says, was saving all the best features for phones that run its Android software. For example, the iPhone app never got spoken directions or vector maps (smooth lines, not tiles of pixels), long after those features had come to rival phones.

Hey, if that’s the case, and if I were Apple, I’d be pissed too — and I’d want to offer a better maps app than Google’s. As an iPhone and iPad user, I’ve been annoyed for years at Google for obviously crippling its iOS Maps app. (Datum: I’m also an Android user.) But now it bothers me a lot more that Google hardly seems to mind that Apple killed the Google-sourced Maps app for the entire iOS 6 user base. Why would Google be so blasé? One big reason is that Apple’s users pay nothing for the app. And, because users pay nothing, Google can ignore those users’ suffering while relishing the sight of Apple embarrassing itself.

To fully understand what’s going on here, it is essentiall to respect the difference between customers and users (aka consumers). Customers pay. By not paying, and functioning only as a user, you have little if any economic leverage. Worse, you’re the product being sold to the actual customers, which are advertisers.

This Google vs. Apple thing reminds me of my days in commercial broadcasting. There too consumers and customers were different populations. Consumers were listeners and viewers whose ears and eyeballs were sold to advertisers, who were the real customers. Listeners and viewers had no leverage when a station or a network got in the mood to kill a format, or a show. We’re in the same spot here, at least in respect to Google.

With Apple it’s different, because iPhone and iPad users are actual customers of Apple. Now chagrined, Apple is pressing that advantage, starting with Tim Cook’s open letter to customers. An excerpt:

We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.

We launched Maps initially with the first version of iOS. As time progressed, we wanted to provide our customers with even better Maps including features such as turn-by-turn directions, voice integration, Flyover and vector-based maps. In order to do this, we had to create a new version of Maps from the ground up.

There are already more than 100 million iOS devices using the new Apple Maps, with more and more joining us every day. In just over a week, iOS users with the new Maps have already searched for nearly half a billion locations. The more our customers use our Maps the better it will get and we greatly appreciate all of the feedback we have received from you.

While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.

If you buy an iPhone you’re already paying for the Maps app. So this post is mostly for Google. While I think an apology is owed to iPhone and iPad users, for withholding features just to disadvantage those devices against Android (if in fact that’s what happened… I still don’t know for sure), I’d rather see Google offer Google Maps for sale, at a fair price, in the Apple Apps store. And I’d like to see Apple approve that product for sale, pronto.

Trust me: plenty of customers will pay. Google will not only drive home the real value of its Maps app (and all the good work behind it), but get some long-overdue practice at doing real customer service. Google’s high dependence on a single source of revenue — advertising — is a vulnerability that can only be reduced by broadening the company’s businesses. The future of selling direct has been looming at Google for a long time. There is a great opportunity, right now, to do that in a big way with Google Maps.

Data wants to be free, but value wants to be paid for. Let us pay. We’re the damed market. Let us help you work out the kinks in your products. Develop real relationships with us, and provide real customer support that’s worth what we pay for it.

[Later...] Some tweets, sort of threaded:

@Owen Barder@carlkalapesi @dsearls seems to be wrong to say that Google has until now had it’s app in IOS. It was an Apple app. [Link.]

@Kevin Marks: No, @dsearls, the old Maps app on iPhone was written by Apple, using Google APIs. Apple vetoed Google’s own app in ’09. [Link]

@Jamie Starke@kevinmarks @dsearls citation needed [Link]

@Kevin Marks: @jamiestarke @dsearls http://wireless.fcc.gov/releases/9182009_Google_Filing_iPhone.pdf … Google Latitude was rejected because Apple believed it could replace the preloaded maps app (p3) [Link]

So are you (Owen and Kevin) saying David Pogue got bad info from Apple in the piece quoted above?

Either way, the question then is, Who crippled the old Maps app? Was it Google, Apple, or both? Also, Why?

I still stand by my recommendation that Google offer the map for sale on iOS. And on Android too, for the reasons I give above.

Meanwhile, somebody ought to put up a post, or a site, explaining the particulars of this case. Such as whose app Maps was, and is now. Most stories (seems to me) about the fracas say the old app was Google’s. If it wasn’t, and was instead an Apple map fed by the Google API, that needs to be made clear. I’m still fuzzed around the details here.

[Later (1 October)...] Christina Bonnington in Wired says it was Apple’s decision not to include turn-by-turn directions in the Maps app. She writes,

When iOS first launched in the iPhone in 2007, Apple embraced Google Maps as its mapping back-end. But over the years, rivalry between the tech giants increased to a fever pitch. So it’s likely that Apple decided some years ago to eventually abandon Google Maps, and create its own platform. And because Apple knew it was eventually going to drop Google as its back-end, there was no point in pushing further innovation or integration with the system doomed to a limited lifespan.

But do I believe her, just because she’s writing for Wired? Do I believe David Pogue, just because he’s writing for the NY Times? Obviously, they don’t agree. At least one is wrong about whether the Maps app was crippled by Google (says David) or Apple (says Christina). At this point I can’t believe either of them. For that I’ll need. at the very least, a quote from a source who knows. I mean, really knows.

Mother Jones‘ original slogan was, “You trust your mother. But you cut the cards.” So here’s my card-cutting: I want hard facts on exactly what happened here. Who made the decision not to include turn-by-turn and voice directions in the Maps app on iOS? It had to have been Apple, Google or some combination of both. Which was it? How? And why?

[Later (2 October)...] In Voice navigation killed Apple-Google maps talks, John Paczkowski of Fox News does the best job I’ve seen yet of pulling the covers back on what actually happened:

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said Apple should have continued to use Google’s mapping application in iOS 6 instead of swapping it out for its poorly received home-brewed replacement, and given the sour reception Apple’s Maps app has been given, he may have been right.

But multiple sources familiar with Apple’s thinking say the company felt it had no choice but to replace Google Maps with its own, because of a disagreement over a key feature: Voice-guided turn-by-turn driving directions.

Spoken turn-by-turn navigation has been a free service offered through Google’s Android mobile OS for a few years now. But it was never part of the deal that brought Google’s Maps to iOS. And sources say Apple very much wanted it to be. Requiring iPhone users to look directly at handsets for directions and manually move through each step — while Android users enjoyed native voice-guided instructions — put Apple at a clear disadvantage in the mobile space…

Apple pushed Google hard to provide the data it needed to bring voice-guided navigation to iOS. But according to people familiar with Google’s thinking, the search giant, which had invested massive sums in creating that data and views it as a key feature of Android, wasn’t willing to simply hand it over to a competing platform.

And if there were terms under which it might have agreed to do so, Apple wasn’t offering them. Sources tell AllThingsD that Google, for example, wanted more say in the iOS maps feature set. It wasn’t happy simply providing back-end data. It asked for in-app branding. Apple declined. It suggested adding Google Latitude. Again, Apple declined. And these became major points of contention between the two companies, whose relationship was already deteriorating for a variety of other reasons, including Apple’s concern that Google was gathering too much user data from the app.

“There were a number of issues inflaming negotiations, but voice navigation was the biggest,” one source familiar with Apple and Google’s negotiations told AllThingsD. “Ultimately, it was a deal-breaker.”

There’s more from John Paczkowski in All Things D.

So maybe we’ll never know. “Sources” will, but the rest of us won’t.

 

 

Over dinner in Amsterdam recently, George Dyson — who knows a thing or two about the history of computing — told me that a crossover of sorts has happened, or is happening now.

The crossover is between a time when we erased storage media to make room for fresh data and a time when we save nearly all of it. This is one reason there’s all this talk about Big Data. We need big ways (storage, analytics, software, services) to deal with the accumulations.

At the personal level we don’t yet have more than a few primitive means, relative to whatever it is that Google, Amazon, Facebook, the NSA and other big entities are doing. At their level, who knows? Lets say Google wants to save all your deleted Gmails. The mails might be deleted for you, but are they deleted for Google? I have no idea. All I know is that storing and analyzing them is more and more do-able for them.

I don’t have an axe to grind here (not yet, anyway). I’m just noting that this change is freighted with many possibilities and many meanings. And so, to make it easier to talk about, I suggest we name it, if it isn’t named already.

Hmm… since the sum of all stored data is Too Big to Know, maybe we should call it the Weinberger Threshold. One reason I like that (at least provisionally, besides liking David) is that there is what I consider a fallacious assumption, or presumption, behind much Big Data talk: that an analytical system can know us better than we know ourselves.

But that’s a whole ‘nuther topic, and maybe we should avoid conflating one with the other. (Though I do think the two — Big Data and Too Big to Know — are related, and I am sure David has thought about this stuff far more than I.)

Anyway, just blogging out loud here.

Discuss.

Earth to Mars

At Tucows, learning to use Marsedit here, from Ross Rader, who is a veteran.

This is while also talking deep OPML jive too. (Such as showing off how I’m using the OPML editor to post/comment in Dave‘s Threads.)

Unrelated: I want my keyboard to paste ⊂⊃ (the r-button characters) as well. (Ross knows a lot of stuff, so I’m getting some of his brain shavings.)

Having both iPhone and Android devices in the household, I’ve been struck for some time by the absence of two Google Maps features on the iPhone that appear on the Android. One is adaptive turn-by-turn directions (the “recalculating” thing that good GPSes, like those of Garmin, Magellan and Tom-Tom, have always done) when you go off the original course. The other is vocalization of directions (which, again, single-purpose GPS devices do). Android devices have those. The iPhone doesn’t.

I had always thought that this difference was due to one of two things:

  1. Apple didn’t want those features
  2. Google didn’t want Apple devices to have those features, presumably to favor Android in user comparisons with iPhone

The second one makes more sense to me, especially since Apple dropped Google’s maps and added those missing features to its own maps.

But I don’t know. In fact, without an Android with me here in France I can’t compare the two. (Back in the U.S., where I’m headed today, I can.)

I’m not even sure I have the facts right on Android vs. Apple navigation.

What I am sure about is that coverage of the change so far is mostly missing the possibility of numbers one or two above. Anybody got the facts on that? Specifically, did Google intentionally cripple its maps on Apple devices to favor Androids? I haven’t seen that question asked yet. [Later... The answer, according to comments below, and also on Twitter, is no. Apparently #1 is the case.]

Meanwhile, Apple’s new maps are a fail for us here in Paris. I upgraded to iOS 6 and my wife didn’t, on our pair of iPhones. Her Google map shows Metro stops. My Apple map does not. Lacking those stops is a deal-killer for her, and she won’t be upgrading until it’s clear to me on my phone that the Apple maps have parity. I’ve got a feeling that will be awhile.

Huge bonus link.

The Northern Lights in the Window

aurora

When it got bumpy on the red-eye from Newark to Amsterdam two Fridays ago, I looked out the window, hoping to see auroral activity such as I’d seen a couple times before on trips like this. And sure enough, there it was. Not as spectacular as the other two, but plenty visible. I watched it from south of Greenland until dawn began to break west of Ireland.

The shot above is the only one in the series without stars turned into lines by the motion of the plane. (The shot, like most others, was four seconds long, at ISO 1600.). The camera, a Canon 5D, is a solid workhorse that’s now eight years old. So is the lens, a $100 bottom-of-the-line 50mm f1.8 prime that I brought along just in case opportunities like this came up.  Alas, the 5D is not great shakes in low light. Still, it was fun watching the show at the time, and still fun sharing a bit of it, a few hours before we fly back.

I want to drive on the Web, but instead I’m being driven. All of us are. And that’s a problem.

It’s not for lack of trying on the part of websites and services such as search engines. But they don’t make cars. They make stores and utilities that try to be personal, but aren’t, and never can be.

Take, for example, the matter of location. The Internet has no location, and that’s one of its graces. But sites and services want to serve, so many notice what IP address you appear to be arriving from. Then they customize their page for you, based on that location. While that might sound innocent enough, and well-intended, it also fails to know one’s true intentions, which matter far more to each of us than whatever a website guesses about us, especially if the guessing is wrong.

Last week I happened to be in New York when a friend in Toronto and I were both looking up the same thing on Google while we talked over Skype. We were unable to see the same thing, or anything close, on Google, because the engine insisted on giving us both localized results, which neither of us wanted. We could change our locations, but not to no location at all. In other words, it wouldn’t let us drive. We could only be driven.

Right now I’m in Paris, and cannot get Google to let me look at Google.com (presumably google.us), Google.uk or Google.anywhere other than France. At least not on its Web page. (If I use the location bar as a place to search, it gives me google.com results, for some non-obvious reason.)

After reading Larry Magid’s latest in Huffpo, about the iPhone 5, which says this…

Gazelle.com is paying $240 for an iPhone 4s in good condition, which is $41 more than the cost of a subsidized iPhone 5. If you buy a new iPhone from Sprint they’ll buy back your iPhone 4s for $235. Trouble is, if you bought a 4s it’s probably still under contract. Sprint is paying $125 for an 8 GB iPhone 4 and Gazelle is paying $145 for a 16 GB iPhone 4 which means that it you can get the $199 upgrade price, your out of pocket could be as little as $54.

… I wondered what BestBuy might give me for my 16GB iPhone 4. But when I go to http://bestbuy.com, the company gives me a page in French. I guess that’s okay, but it’s still annoying. (So is seeing that I can’t get a trade-in price without visiting a store.)

Back in the search world, I’ve been looking for a prepaid wireless internet access strategy to get data at sane prices in the next few countries I visit. A search for “prepaid wireless internet access” on google.fr gets me lots of ads in French, some of which might be more interesting if I knew French as well as I know English, but I doubt it. The “I’m feeling lucky” result is a faux-useful SEO-elevated page with the same title as the search query. The rest of the first page results are useless as well. (I did eventually find a useful site for my UK visit the week after next, but I’ll save that for another post.)

To describe what the Web has become, two metaphors come to mind.

The first is a train system that mostly runs between commercial destinations. In a surreal way, you are transported from one destination to another near-instantly (or at the speed of a page loading ads and cookies along with whatever it was you went there for), and are trapped at every destination in a cabin with a view only of what the destination wants you to see. The cabin is co-occupied by dozens or hundreds of conductors at any given time, all competing for your attention and telling you something they hope will make you buy something or visit other sites. In the parlance of professionals on the supply side of this system, what you get here is an “experience” that they “deliver.” To an increasing degree this experience is personalized, and for every person it’s different. If you looked at pants a few sites back, you might see ads for pants, or whatever it is that the system thinks you might want to buy, whether you’re in a buying mood or not at the time. (And most of the time you’re not, but they don’t care about that.)

Google once aspired to give us access to “all the world’s information”, which suggests a library. But the library-building job is now up to Archive.org. Instead, Google now personalizes the living shit out of its search results. One reason, of course, is to give us better search results. But the other is to maximize the likelihood that we’ll click on an ad. But neither is served well by whatever it is that Google thinks it knows about us. Nor will it ever be, so long as we are driven, rather than driving.

I think what’s happened in recent years is that users searching for stuff have been stampeded by sellers searching for users. I know Googlers will bristle at that characterization, but that’s what it appears to have become, way too much of the time.

But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that browsers are antique vehicles.

See, we need to drive, and browsers aren’t cars. They’re shopping carts that shape-shift with every site we visit. They are optimized for being inside websites, not for driving outside them, or between them. In fact, we can hardly imagine the Net or the Web as a space that’s larger than the sites in it. But we need to do that if we’re going to start designing means of self-transport that transcend the limitations of browsing and browsers.

Think about what it means to drive.  The cabin, steering wheel, pedals, controls, engine, tires and chassis of a car are all controlled by you. The world through which you move is outside, not inside. Even in malls, you park outside the stores. The stores do not intrude inside your personal space. Driving is no less personal and no less masterfully yours when you ride a bike or a motorcycle, or pilot a plane. Those are all personal vehicles too. A browser should have been like one of those, and that was kind of the idea back in the early days when we talked about “surfing” and the “information highway.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead browsers became shopping carts that get fresh skins at every website.

We need a new vehicle. One that’s ours.

The smartphone would be ideal if it wasn’t also a phone. But that’s what it is. With few exceptions, we rent smartphones from phone companies and equipment makers, which collude to sentence us to “plans” that last for two years at a run.

I had some hope for Android., but that hope is fading now. Although supporting general purpose hardware and software was one of Google’s basic ideas behind Android, that’s not how it’s turning out. Android in most cases is an embedded operating system on a special purpose device. In the most familiar U.S. cases (AT&T’s, Sprint’s, T-Mobile’s and Verizon’s) the most special purpose of that device is locking you to a plan and soaking you for some quantity of minutes, texts and GB of data, whether you use the full amounts or not, and then punishing you for going over. They play an asymmetrical knowledge game with you, where they can monitor your every move, and all your usage, while you can barely do the same, if at all.

So we have a long way to go before mobile phones become the equivalent of a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle or a small plane. I don’t think there is an evolutionary path to the Net’s equivalent of a car that starts with a smartphone. Unless it’s not a phone first and a computing/communication device second.

The personal computing and communications revolution is thirty years old now, if we date it from the first IBM PC.  And right now we’re stuck, mostly because we think having the Web “personalized” is the same thing as having a personal vehicle. And because we think having a smartphone makes us independent. Neither is true. That’s why we won’t make progress past those problems until we start thinking and inventing outside their old boxes.

Geologists have an informal name for the history of human influence on the Earth. They call it the Anthropocene. It makes sense. We have been raiding the earth for its contents, and polluting its atmosphere, land and oceans for as long as we’ve been here, and it shows. By any objective perspective other than our own, we are a pestilential species. We consume, waste and fail to replace everything we can, with  little regard for consequences beyond our own immediate short-term needs and wants. Between excavation, erosion, dredgings, landfills and countless other alterations of the lithosphere, evidence of human agency in the cumulative effects studied by geology is both clear and non-trivial.

As for raiding resources, I could list a hundred things we’ll drill, mine or harvest out of the planet and never replace — as if it were in our power to do so — but instead I’ll point to just one small member of the periodic table: helium. Next to hydrogen, it’s the second lightest element, with just two electrons and two protons. Also, next to hydrogen, it is the second most abundant, comprising nearly a quarter of the universe’s elemental mass.  It is also one of the first elements to be created out of the big bang, and remains essential to growing and lighting up stars.

Helium is made in two places: burning stars and rotting rock. Humans can do lots of great stuff, but so far making helium isn’t one of them. Still, naturally, we’ve been using that up: extracting it away, like we do so much else. Eventually, we’ll run out.

Heavy elements are also in short supply. When a planet forms, the heaviest elements sink to the core. The main reason we have gold, nickel, platinum, tungsten, titanium and many other attractive and helpful elements laying around the surface or within mine-able distance below is that meteorites put them there, long ago. At our current rate of consumption, we’ll be mining the moon and asteroids for them. If we’re still around.

Meanwhile the planet’s climates are heating up. Whether or not one ascribes this to human influence matters less than the fact that it is happening. NASA has been doing a fine job of examining symptoms and causes. Among the symptoms are the melting of Greenland and the Arctic. Lots of bad things are bound to happen. Seas rising. Droughts and floods. Methane releases. Bill McKibben is another good source of data and worry. He’s the main dude behind 350.org, named after what many scientists believe is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million. We’re over that now, at about 392. (Bonus link.)

The main thing to expect, in the short term — the next few dozen or hundreds of years — is rising sea levels, which will move coastlines far inland for much of the world, change ecosystems pretty much everywhere, and alter the way the whole food web works.

Here in the U.S., neither major political party has paid much attention to this. On the whole the Republicans are skeptical about it. The Democrats care about it, but don’t want to make a big issue of it. The White House has nice things to say, but has to reconcile present economic growth imperatives with the need to save the planet from humans in the long run.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, or how I’m going to vote, because I don’t want this to be about that. What I’m talking about here is evolution, not election. That’s the issue. Can we evolve to be symbiotic with the rest of the species on Earth? Or will we remain a plague?

Politics is for seasons. Evolution is inevitable. One way or another.

(The photo at the top is one among many I’ve shot flying over Greenland — a place that’s changing faster, perhaps, than any other large landform on Earth.)

[18 September...] I met and got some great hang time with Michael Schwartz (@Sustainism) of Sustainism fame, at PICNIC in Amsterdam, and found ourselves of one, or at least overlapping, mind on many things. I don’t want to let the connection drop, so I’m putting a quick shout-out here, before moving on to the next, and much-belated, post.

Also, speaking of the anthropocene, dig The ‘Anthropocene’ as Environmental Meme and/or Geological Epoch, in Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin, in The New York Times. I met him at an event several years ago and let the contact go slack. Now I’m reeling it in a bit. :-) Here’s why his work is especially germane to the topic of this here post:  ”Largely because of my early writing on humans as a geological force, I am a member of the a working group on the Anthropocene established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.” Keep up the good work, Andy.